Editor’s note: The following is the text of a speech delivered at National Review Institute’s summit on the future of conservatism on January 27, 2013.
I want to begin by saying something that needs to be said: I am not going to tell you that we have the luxury of feeling good about where we are as a movement, or that we don’t have lessons to learn. But this is the movement and the cause that rescued this country 30 years ago, when serious people thought we were too complex to be governed anymore. This is the movement and the cause that refused to believe freedom was exhausted, only that it was tired of not being defended. And you held up freedom and made it so vibrant that prisoners in Prague and shipbuilders in Gdansk and freedom fighters in Managua and dissidents in gulags in Russia saw it and were moved by it. And not only have you been right about these large, cosmic things, you have been right about more basic things: We can’t grow an economy by making audacity cost too much, we can’t strengthen people by penalizing them for work, we can’t own our future by living on the credit of countries who want to dominate us. Those values are as right today as they were yesterday, and may they always define us. I have not always been with you, but I am with you now, and I am proud to stand with you to wage this fight.
So, about this election. Yes, we have learned that the American people can trust us to do a better job on the three things they say matter the most to them — the economy, health care, and spending — and still not vote for us. We learned that 5 million fewer people can vote for the president and that he can still get reelected, the first time in 120 years that an incumbent has won and gotten fewer votes than he got the first time — in contrast, 12 million more people voted for George Bush in 2004 than in 2000. How is it that we lost when so many Americans agreed with our broad principles, and when 5 million people abandoned Obama?
I want to be candid with you. My belief is that we have found a way to make a case to people who think like we do, and have what we do, and that we need to learn to start making a case to the rest of America.
We find it very easy to make a case to our own, and that is human nature. There is no sweeter sound in politics than the one of men and women agreeing with each other that they are right. If you are an American who is steeped in the tradition of limited constitutional government, we have a case for you. If you have the capacity to do one of the hardest things in America, which is to start a business, and keep the books in the black and not the red, and have enough to sustain your family, we have a case for you, and, for good measure, we will keep telling you that yes, you did build it.
But I want you to think for a moment. Today, tens of millions of Americans will gather around the table for a meal, except they won’t call it brunch, they will call it Sunday supper. They will eat at tables in their homes, not in lofty hotels like this one or the equivalent in their communities. And, to be blunt, they love this country as much as we do, but they do not believe its freedoms are at stake. But they wonder if they can bear the cost of college for their 18-year-old child. Many of us wonder about where we will send our kids to college; they wonder if they can send their child to college. Many of them work with their hands, and their backs and legs and feet hurt at the end of the day. They worry not about freedom, but about the depleted state of their savings. They don’t carry around a pocket copy of the Constitution, but they know that too many of their tax dollars go to Washington, and is it such a quaint thought that they want a return on their investment and want government to work for their interests?
What do we have to say to them, the people who work with their hands, who give their 35 percent to the government because their accountants can’t make it disappear to 15 percent? They watch our cable shows and they know that we conservatives are angry. But they want to make sure that our anger is not about our being powerless but about their being powerless.
They want to know what really bothers us about these times.
So, we need to ask ourselves, if we are serious about gaining the chance to lead, does it bother us as conservatives that 75 percent of children in some public schools today don’t read at their grade level? If it bothers Barack Obama, I never heard him say so in his inaugural progressive manifesto last week, the one with the working title “The Country I Would Make if Half of America Disappeared.” Does it bother us as conservatives that the median earnings in this country, if you control for inflation, go no further than they did in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was keynoting conferences like this and the Supremes were at the top of the charts and the Beatles were first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show? Does it bother us that the number of able-bodied men who are working is 15 percent less today than in 1982? Does it bother us that the number of people with college degrees is no higher statistically than in 1979?
Does it bother us as conservatives that the level of public trust is the lowest it has been since Richard Nixon’s top aides were doing perp walks? Does it bother us that we are fragmented to the point that we are increasingly two cultures, equal but separate?
I think we must care as conservatives. You know, one of the central problems with liberalism is that liberals don’t trust individuals. But isn’t it also true that, if they don’t trust what we can do as individuals, some in our ranks don’t trust what we can do when we come together?
We ought to be the party that trusts people. You are about to hear from Bobby Jindal, the governor who has spent the past year fighting for the families in his state who can’t buy their way out of the public-school system and are trapped in failing schools. And yes, he has relied on the power of the state and the tax dollars those families send to their state capital to give them the help they need in the form of vouchers, and in so doing, he is trusting those individuals to make the right choices for their children. That doesn’t just make him a smart Republican, it makes him a conservative Republican to the core. And we as conservatives ought to be waging that kind of fight on behalf of parents all over this country.
Ladies and gentlemen, to be a conservative is also not to be blind about how our values affect people’s lives. There are so many good, hard-working people who can barely see water’s edge, and they vote, in Ohio and Virginia and Florida and Colorado, and we can win their votes if we stand for a conservatism that lifts up people who want to advance, that can change people’s lives.
I want to leave you with an image. Some of you may not know, but I have an interesting relationship to Denver: I was there when Obama got nominated, I was there at the debate when Obama got exposed. Both times coming into town, I passed the same town square. In 2008, that square was full of families with their kids. This fall, it had a section full of homeless men, and yes, they were mostly black and brown. Barack Obama’s reality has given them a T-shirt to wear, and, to his credit, he has given them a politician to care about. But he hasn’t lifted their lives. The world that Obama does not see in his progressive manifesto, the world that he barely acknowledges or addresses, it is the space that we can occupy as conservatives if we will only claim it.
May we build a conservatism that can reach valleys and not just mountaintops; that can reach the hollows and the shadows and not just inside the gated walls; that understands that in the shining city, as Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address, there will be walls but that the walls must have doors for the willing, and that we can help people walk through those doors. If we can, not only will we have power again, we will deserve power.
— Artur Davis is a former congressman who represented Alabama’s seventh congressional district.